For women, in particular, nothing seems to evoke as much emotion, aspiration and daily frustration as the search for the perfect hairstyle. We’ll do anything to avoid the ultimate social horror of a bad hair day and some of us truly believe that our hair plays a large part in defining who we are.
Astonishing, then, that there has been almost no in-depth study of our relationship with our hair. Unless it starts to fall out. Or grow in places where it shouldn’t.
In the days before hairsprays and other styling goo, we relied on basic, often short cuts and, when all else failed, wigs. Today we can cover our hair in plastic and glue and force it to take almost any impossible, hardto-maintain, ‘don’t touch me, you’ll mess up my hair’ shape we can dream of. And yet we are not as loyal to our styling products as manufacturers would have us believe. Unlike cosmetics, when times get tough, hair-styling products are invariably the ones that get left off the shopping list.
Nevertheless, around 31 per cent of us regularly use styling products almost every day and in the UK we spent around £220 million on them in 2006. Globally we spent around £4.5 billion on hair-styling products. Procter and Gamble, which owns the Pantene brand, has the largest share (22 per cent) of this market, followed closely by L’Oréal.
Women make up the majority of users, but men’s products – which are just women’s products in more masculine packaging – are becoming increasingly popular. In the 1980s, styling foams replaced styling lotions. The switch offered several advantages, including the fact that the foams did not drip and were easy to portion out and distribute throughout the hair. Most styling mousses are made from a combination of water, film-forming resins, surfactants and a propellant system. Apart from providing a bit of hold to our style, mousse products traditionally have a strong element of conditioning associated with them, along with other properties such as easy wet combing, good holding power, better volume, shine and a smooth, silky feel to touch.
But the ‘conditioning’ provided by your mousse is an artifice – the resins and plastics in them may make your hair feel smoother in the short term but they do nothing to actually improve the actual condition of your hair. In fact, the more you use them, the more these ingredients can build up on your hair, decreasing its volume and making it dull and unattractive. And adding ‘nutrients’ such as panthenol or various vitamins are unlikley to remedy this.
Hair mousse also has certain things in it that the styling lotions of old didn’t. Atmosphere-damaging propellants are the first thing that comes to mind. Isobutane, propane and butane may not destroy the earth’s ozone shield, but they do contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, or smog, which can cause or exacerbate serious respiratory problems. Because they are based on water, they also contain a range of skin irritating preservatives. To keep it all mixed together, industrial strength solvent like propylene glycol – and yes, it really is used in anti-freeze.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this product is the fact that 9 of the 21 listed ingredients are fragrances – central nervous system toxins and respiratory and skin irritants that have nothing to do with holding or conditioning your hair. Some even double as pesticide ingredients.
Apart from not using styling products, there are really very few alternatives to things like mousses (and gels and hairsprays). In the end, the healthiest alternative might be to stop buying hair-styling products and use the money you save on a really good haircut (and as many women know, a trip to a really great hairdresser is like visiting a lover and a priest at the same time). With a really good, professional haircut, you should not need to apply lots of glue to your hair to keep it the way you want it. Do this and you may find that you and your hair live happily ever after.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2007